Dancing across Borders / Danzas y Bailes Mexicanos

Edited by Olga Nájera-Ramírez, Norma E. Cantú, and Brenda M. Romero. 2009. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 472 pages. ISBN: 978-0-252-03409-1 (hard cover), 978-0-252-07609-1 (soft cover).

Reviewed by Eric Morales, Indiana University

[Review length: 1536 words • Review posted on February 16, 2011]

This book, consisting of a rich collection of twenty essays, written with an ethnographic approach, aims to explore how the evolution of dance traditions can represent social, historical, and political trajectories of a people by analyzing the changing dynamics of Mexican dance forms, resulting from cultural mixing within Mexico as well as from adaptations brought about by the recontextualization of these dances within the United States.

The introduction of the book brings the reader into a broad discussion of the importance of dance to the indigenous populations of Mexico and the subsequent colonization that altered and introduced new dance forms. A distinction is then made to better understand the differences between the two main categories of dances that are referenced: those that are more indigenous in nature and those that owe more of their roots to colonization. The word, danza, carries within it a degree of indigeneity and is defined as heavily focused on groups as well as conveying, in a vernacular sense, religious issues of ritual and ceremony. Baile, which is the Spanish equivalent of the English word “dance,” is presented as being more secular and couple-oriented. The essays themselves are then separated into four distinct groupings: Contested Identities, Dimensions of Space and Place, Trajectories of Tradition, Politics of Tradition and Innovation.

As a part of expressive culture, dancing is a profound way to blend together cultural manifestations of physical movement, music, costume, and storytelling. As such, the performance of traditional dance can be a way of connecting to a cultural past, while its manipulation and integration with more recent styles, in the case of Mexico with Catholicism, can be a way to construct a new identity that is both grounded in the past and cognizant of current societal issues. This is the premise that the first section of the book, Contested Identities, uses to look at issues of social and personal identification through dance. It begins with an essay by Elisa Diana Huerta that examines how both Mexican nationals and Mexican immigrants of all ages uphold danza traditions as a way to connect with their indigenous ancestry and to each other as they cross the border in order to perform at events. The essay by Renée de la Torre Castellanos looks at how the Chicano movement of the 1960s and 1970s put a focus on danza as a means of celebrating and recuperating indigenous ancestries through a highly visual medium, and here the book also grounds danza in an extremely pivotal era of Mexican-American identity formation. In order to explore issues of identity in gendered terms, an essay by Xóchitl Chávez analyzes how cross-dressing in festivals helped redefine the gendered norms by moving a fringe part of the community into the public sphere. An essay by Marie Miranda examines how Chicana youths choreographed a routine that is inflected with indigenous dance traits to assert and communicate their gendered identities in a society that racializes bodies. This section ends its focus on identity with an essay by María Teresa Ceseña that explores danza as a means of cultural agency, examining how two different groups use danza for political, social, or cultural empowerment.

In the section, Dimensions of Space and Place, the essays emphasize the dialectic between dance and location by interpreting the issue of place as being “space with meaning” and examining how dance can imbue it with greater cultural significance. The section begins with a work by Norma E. Cantú that explores how danza and the veneration of an object, the Holy Cross, can take a secular place and make it sacred, a process called sacralizing. In doing so, the religious negotiation between the disparate beliefs of the indigenous and the colonizers becomes explicated. Hybridization of multiple cultures is then looked at in regards to spaces occupied for bailes by immigrant indigenous communities in the United States and in the ways a school in Mexico transforms a Japanese dance to reflect local socio-cultural issues. This part of the book ends with a chapter by José Sánchez Jiménez that reflects on how dance and ritual are inherently tied to place through agriculture, specifically the cultivation of corn, and touches on why the dance continues when the circumstances that first fostered it have ended.

The third section, Trajectories of Tradition, deals with the persistence of dance genres, looking at issues of perceptions and meanings of localized dances as well as how the ideologies of a large-scale dance group, Ballet Folklórico de México, influence the construction and representation of the Mexican nation/identity within the United States. From local to national, this section continues on to the personal, navigating tradition and identity through an essay written by Rudy García, a dancer and teacher of folklórico, which gives a first-hand account of how danza can navigate and change one man’s cultural awareness, and through him, the cultural landscape of a community. The following essay Susan Cashion turns its focus on a specific dance, the danzón, to examine its particular trajectory, from its beginnings in Cuba in the nineteenth century to its place as a “perfect symbol” of a palatable and acceptable means of intergenerational family interaction within a Mexican community. The section ends with an essay by Nancy Lee Chalfa Ruyter that concerns itself with analyzing gendered representations in modern dance from Mexico, highlighting issues of feminism.

The final section of the book, Politics of Tradition and Innovation, takes aim at understanding the divergent forces and conditions acting upon dancing traditions that seek to either edify the traditions or change them, while elucidating how the changes occur. This theme is first touched on in an essay by Olga Nájera-Ramírez that pays particular attention to the recontextualization of folklórico dances that are produced for staged performances/festivals but are still advertised with the brand of the authentic and what the idea of the authentic means to performers, audiences, and communities. The final essays in the book are personal testimonials, the first of which, by Russell Rodríguez, explores the role the Chicano movement had in the dissemination of folklórico within the United States and how regardless of that pivotal role, Chicanismo is not well reflected in these dances. The final essay traces the artistic life of performer/ethnomusicologist, Martha González, and by doing so it effectively ties in all premises of the book, examining identity formation, tradition, innovation, and place—as her life is intrinsically connected to both sides of the border as well as to the borderlands.

Although the material referenced in this book is of particular interest to Mexicans and Chicanos, the way in which the dances are analyzed in relation to broader social themes, such as the dynamics of the society encompassing the dance as well as socially charged places, provides a valuable resource to all who are interested in dance studies. And by consistently supplying language translations as well as brief histories of the dances referenced, the material is made accessible to a large audience. Through these means, the book successfully realizes its primary goal: to provide the reader with a “fundamental understanding of theoretical and methodological issues related to a variety of Greater Mexico dance practices and social processes” (xvii).

The construction of the book itself, reliant on a variety of essays, acts as both a benefit and detriment as it supplies a large swath of information on the subject matter while simultaneously the natural brevity of each essay prohibits a more in-depth look at particular dance genres that future researchers may benefit from. The main drawback of this construction, however, is that the essays do not fit well into the determined categories. This is a fairly common problem whenever a book brings together such a large assortment of essays. The editors even make a note of this situation in the introduction, stating that the essays are not meant to be mutually exclusive and can contain material that may easily correspond well with other sections.

Yet, the broad themes that were chosen to encapsulate these essays contribute to this blurring. For instance, a large number of the essays deal directly with issues of creating identities within contested spaces, which essentially nullifies the importance of having this serve as its own category. If the essays contain the potential for such easily nomadic tendencies, then the purpose of categorization, which is to bring together works of similar thematic concepts, is not fully realized. Perhaps more specific categories could have been used to create a different organizational structure, one that more directly relates to the theoretical and methodological issues, enabling the reader greater ease of access to the book’s rich fieldwork and research. For instance, there are numerous essays that deal directly, and primarily, with understanding the construction of gender within communities through dance forms, and since gender studies is such a strong discourse, grouping these essays under their own heading may have made more sense and may have elicited more attention from scholars interested in that field.

Ultimately, the assemblage of this collection of works adds a great deal of scholarship to an area that has historically been underrepresented in academia. This book should be highly regarded as a wonderful, insightful, and enjoyable overview of the myriad facets of dance traditions that span borders and encompass a wide range of people.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.